March 18 2008 by Ellen Roseman
I happen to like scanning my own groceries, but I always feel like a traitor to the team. Will supermarkets eliminate human help as gas stations did? It seems like a dangerous trend to make customers do a cashier’s work and not pay them for it.
There’s a cover story in the latest Time magazine on 10 ideas that are changing the world. The end of customer service is on the list. “With self-serve technology, you’ll never have to see a clerk again,” the article says.
Companies love self-service for the money it saves. But why do consumers play along? Maybe the service we get is so minimal that we figure we might as well do it ourselves. Or maybe we’re in such a hurry that we can’t stand lining up.
I’d argue that the self-check-in kiosks at airports have actually improved our travel experience by cutting the waiting time. So have the self-serve screens at movie theatres.
Time cites a British experiment with machines that let customers not only buy merchandise on their own but also return it. There’s a chain of sushi restaurants in Malaysia with order screens linked to the kitchen — so much for waitresses. And a U.S. hospital will soon use check-in kiosks for emergency room visits. Simply touch the image of the human body where it hurts.
By adding all these new tasks to our daily routine, are we overstressing ourselves and reducing our quality of life? It’s an interesting debate. Just don’t expect to have it with a clerk.
This follows an earlier cover story in Businessweek magazine about consumer vigilantes. These frustrated folks use the Web and YouTube to get companies to respond to their anguished complaints.
Take Bob Garfield, a National Public Radio host, who set up the Comcast Must Die website. After repeated delays with his own cable TV service, Garfield suggested that customers post their account numbers on the blog. Dozens of customers followed his suggestion and many said Comcast called them back shortly after they posted their account numbers and rants. (This sounds like what I’m doing with Bloomex complaints here.)
There are also websites like The Consumerist that publish secret phone numbers and email addresses for executives that respond to high-profile customers and media personalities. Many companies are reluctant to talk about their executive customer service — or even to tell people that it exists. But The Consumerist does it here for Fedex and here for Microsoft.
If you’re at loggerheads with a big company, chances are I have a contact or can find one for you. So keep those complaints coming.